History Wars and the Paparazzi
by Yvette Claire Rosser, PhD – A.B.D.
One of the swiftest entrees to understanding any modern society is through listening to political discourse about education. Power struggles and ideological controversies about how to socialize and enculturate youth are at the heart of the processes by which a society is continually recreated.1
During the past few years, since the political rise of the Hindu revivalist movement in India, there has been considerable journalistic attention to the rewriting of history in that country. This topic has consumed a tremendous amount of column space and is considered a very news worthy item in India. Analyses of the “Saffronization” or “Hinduization” of Indian academia has also made their way into publications in the West.
Since coming to power in 1998, the BJP government has made appointments to boards and directorships of institutions. Naturally, as in the case of all political parties, they have appointed individuals who are in line with or sympathetic to the political agenda of the ruling party. Much like the EPA has recently been peopled by corporate executives who have a long history of opposing environmental safeguards, all George W. Bush appointees. In India, this readjustment in the political persuasion of officials in governmental bodies has caused a major uproar among scholars from other ideological persuasions who are seeing their own paradigms deconstructed by the new dispensation.
In India all officially initiated discussions regarding textbooks or curriculum changes are hotly discussed in the popular media as well as in the houses of government. As in India, in other countries such as the Philippines, Israel, the USA, Britain, the countries of the former USSR and Warsaw Pack, the Balkan nations, South Africa, and in fact, in most modern nation states, this very public discourse about historical representation often occupies the attention of not only the scholarly community, but is followed in the popular media by the general population as well. It is not simply post-colonial nations that struggle to recreate historical narrations, when nations such as France and Germany and Japan struggle to come to terms with their past and recreate historical perspectives that can both validate the nation-state and forge relationships with neighboring countries. International media attention often highlights the struggles that various factions within a nation will wage in order to change the interpretations of the past and gain power over the narration and essentially, the meaning of the nation. The following examples from journalistic sources will underscore the importance of the rewriting of history textbooks.
Recently in Italy, right-wing politicians called for a regional review panel of high school history textbooks, claiming as they did, that Italian textbooks are too influenced by communist ideology. A centrist politician who agreed that the “books were biased,” lamented “that the call for revision had given the left free ammunition,” with which they can accuse the revisionists of “a return to fascism” and “state censorship”.2 There was a debate in the Italian parliament during which Mr. Storace, a member of the right-wing National Alliance, defended the right of regions to selectively choose history textbooks, challenging the central government’s prerogative over the control of the historical narrative. He stated, “I don’t want to replace Marxist books with non-Marxist books. I would just like authors to have more respect for the truth.” He complained that the textbooks ignored events in WWII “such as the massacre of Italians by Yugoslav troops in northeastern Italy at the end of the war.”
This debate in Italy has rekindled the rhetorical antagonisms between leftists who dominated post-war Italian politics and a latent Italian nationalism and resurgent post-fascism that pits the regional governments against the center.3These critiques and reactions employ similar images and language as those that played out in the USA in 1995 regarding the History Standards, which will be discussed later in this introduction. This situation is also quite similar to the rewriting of history that is currently a hot topic in India, regarding the indigenization or “Saffronization of Education.”
In Bosnia where telling history from an ethnic or religious perspective can be dangerous, the complexities of the multiple ethnicities defy a codified historical narrative. In an article, “History’s a Tough Test for Bosnian Teachers”, that appeared in the October 14, 1997 edition of the International Herald Tribune, Peter S. Green explains the difficulties that Bosnian teachers faced when trying to reconstruct and teach about the history of a region where diversity can be deadly. The article quotes several teachers who are trying to create a history for all of their students. The teachers contrasted the history that they are teaching with the Communist era textbooks where “Bosnia’s own millennium of generally peaceful co-existence among different faiths was all but ignored.” In those books “kids were mainly taught . . . Serbian history, and Bosnia – its history [was] just half a page.” The teachers explained that they were “trying to interpret history in the most accurate light [with] no place for national hatred, from any side.”
However, also in 1997, the Bosnian government introduced a new curriculum that seemed to be dividing the “country again along ethnic lines.” The new curriculum would teach “Bosnian Croat youngsters a Croat nationalist version of history and introducing an Islamist view in other schools that historians say does not reflect Bosnia’s true multi-ethnic nature nor its true history.” Critics fear that the new curriculum, in an attempt to include the perspectives of all the citizens, will teach the students narrow nationalistic interpretations that will cause more divisions in an already divided society.
The continuing stress laid on the rewriting of history textbooks in Bosnia was highlighted by a UNESCO sponsored conference, “History Curricula and Textbooks in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” held in April 2001, in which “university professors, history teachers, textbook authors, and curriculum experts” participated in order to “discuss new approaches for the development of history curricula and for the presentation of controversial and shared elements in the history textbooks in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”4
Curricular changes implemented in Israeli history textbooks were the subject of a July, 1999 article in the New York Times, reporting that for the first time since the creation of the Israeli state in1948, the “word ‘Palestinian’ [was included in the textbooks] to refer to a people and a nationalist movement.”5 Official history as narrated in Israeli textbooks was radically revised in 1999 and many common beliefs about the early years of the Jewish state were “exposed as myth” and images of the “Arab enemy” were significantly softened. Importantly, these new Israeli textbooks “ask the pupils to put themselves in the Arabs’ shoes and consider how they would have felt about Zionism.”
The author of one of the new ninth-grade textbooks, Eyal Naveh, a history professor at Tel Aviv University, explains,
Only ten years ago much of this was taboo […] we were not mature enough to look at these controversial problems. Now we can deal with this the way Americans deal with the Indians and black enslavement. We are getting rid of certain myths.
Many scholars such as Howard Zinn and Jim Loewen would argue that standard U.S. history textbooks still inadequately deal with the question of African slavery and the genocide of indigenous Americans.
The 1999 Israeli textbooks, described in The New York Times article, attempted to give a less Zionistic interpretation of the events of 1948. The new Israeli curriculum generated a level of controversy that “mirrors the wider dispute in Israel,” quite similar to the passionate responses that greeted the publication of the NEH sponsored History Standards in the U.S. in 1995. However, only Israeli students in the secular mainstream system, which “serves about 60 percent of the population” are using the new, less nationalistic textbooks. The remaining 40 percent of students who attend religious schools do “not use the new books, meaning that the division between the various sectors may be aggravated further.” The impetus to change the history textbooks in Israel came after the Oslo Accord and was intended as a symbol that Israelis had responded to the call “to fight racism and provocation and instruct their populations to coexist.”
This article about social studies curriculum reform in Israel was considered of such popular interest and international importance that it appeared on the front page of the New York Times. The article mentioned that in 1999 Palestinian students were using Jordanian and Egyptian textbooks, which were peppered with anti-Semitism and “never mention Israel and often portray Jews as evil and blood-thirsty”. The article goes on to quote Khalil Mahshi, the director of international relations at the Palestinian Education Ministry. When asked if the coming Palestinian textbooks would include “Israeli perspectives”, he responded,
We are attempting to be as objective as possible. . .to do that means overcoming pain. To see the Zionist movement as having an equal right to our land as we do is to embark on a personal journey to history which is more complicated than most people realize. [. . . ] Israelis are changing because they can afford it. They are so rich now and powerful that they can afford to be magnanimous and say, ‘O.K., there are people here we haven’t treated well.’ But when you are still dealing with daily difficulties and view them as the fault of the people next door, can you afford to be so magnanimous?
A year later, on September 15, 2000, an article in the International Herald Tribune “Forging a Homegrown School Curriculum for a Palestinian State” discussed the first social studies textbooks published by the Palestinian Authority.6 New textbooks for first and sixth graders were the initial attempt at creating a “genuine Palestinian curriculum.” Instead of using foreign books, these new texts are “part of the process of building institutions for an emerging Palestinian state” they are “saturated with local images”. But as the Herald article points out, “since the Palestinian nation has not yet emerged, the curriculum is a delicate work in progress.”
According to the principal at an elementary school in Ramallah, on the West Bank, it is “almost impossible to teach geography. [….] As far as every Palestinian is concerned, the map cannot be drawn before the borders are determined.” The principal wondered if the students should illustrate Palestine by drawing “snowflakes, to portray the unconnected parcels of land that now constitute the Palestinian-ruled territories.” Ironically, the map of the region that is used in the new textbooks is what the writers call “the historic map of Palestine.” It is a pre-1948 map. “Israel is not pictured. Tel Aviv does not exist.”
Many Israelis feel this quintessential denial of even the geographical existence of the Jewish state “betrays the whole spirit of the peace effort”. What is the use, they ask, for the “Palestinians to generate a new educational curriculum that, for starters, ignores Israel on the map?” These fledgling textbooks are the object of scrutiny not only from critics in Israel, but by Palestinians who have been scouring them for signs of how the government is managing the delicate question of forging a national identity from so many strands: the West Bank and Gaza, Muslims and Christians, religious and secular.
With the ongoing violence and instability in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, the choice of textbook tales and the tone of the telling will continue to change with the times. The complexities and contradictions of modern definitions of nationhood give rise to history by committee, and the makeup of committees changes, whether they are administered by UNESCO or by members of official Taliban religious police in Afghanistan called the Ministry for Fostering Virtue and Suppressing Vice.
Japanese textbooks offer an excellent example of curriculum wars and the battles that people are willing to wage to defend their right to write history from a particular point of view. Of considerable importance is the work of Ienaga Saburo who spent decades challenging official government censorship of Japanese textbooks in which it was forbidden until the mid-1980s to mention negative aspects of Japan’s role in World War II. Controversial issues such as the Nanjing Massacre, the Korean comfort women, the biological warfare unit 731, and other wartime atrocities were taboo subjects in the Japanese curriculum until litigation by Professor Ienaga changed the censorship policies of the Ministry of Education. In 1982, the textbook screening panel added what was called a neighboring countries clause, which stated that consideration should be given to other Asian countries when writing historical descriptions.
In the early sixties, Ienaga authored a textbook that discussed wartime atrocities. When it was censored, he filed the first of numerous lawsuits, fighting the strong lobby of historical revisionists in Japan who for decades dominated official circles with their negationist claims that war crimes did not occur. The result of over thirty years of litigation, Ienaga was gradually allowed to write textbooks that included less vague descriptions of Japanese aggression in World War II. In 2001, a petition was circulated to nominate Professor Ienaga for the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his lifelong efforts against the government censors who tried to edit all references to Japanese military aggression and human rights violations from his textbooks. The petition to the Nobel committee concluded with the statement that Ienaga believes in the aphorism of George Santayana, “Whoever forgets the past is doomed to relive it.” But the overarching determinant of which history will be remembered and which forgotten, depends on which narrative is in a position of power after the battle lines of historical interpretation have been drawn. The battles are never final and today’s history can become tomorrow’s myth and yesterday’s myth can become today’s facts.
Recently the Japanese curriculum was again in the news regarding changes or “regressions” in the draft manuscripts of the 2002 editions of Japanese junior high social studies textbooks produced by “Atarashii rekishi kyoukasho wo tsukuru kai” (Group to Produce a New History), a group that claims current textbooks present an overly negative view of modern Japanese history.7 In the previous 1997 editions of approved textbooks, references had been included about the treatment of Korean comfort women and Japanese imperialist aggression against China and Korea. The latest edition of at least one junior high school textbook recently approved by the Ministry of Education has taken a more right-wing stance – mention of Korean comfort women was erased and a more apologist tone was used.
Though it looks as if this new renationalized textbook discarded Ienaga’s decades of work, what seems to have happened is that now some aspects of Ienaga’s approach to history have become the model. Japan’s Education Ministry, which had traditionally promoted a more nationalistic historiography, endorsed the neo-nationalistic textbook only after the publishers agreed to revise 137 accounts of sensitive issues, revisions designed to move the narrative towards a left/liberal stance that is also more acceptable to the Koreans and Chinese. Ironically, the ministry that had for years blocked the more liberal or transnational perspective has now put at least mild pressure on the rightwing or nationalist historians to “internationalize” their narratives.
Earl M. Kinmonth, a scholar of modern Japanese social history, offered this review of the situation,
[After] years of criticism (and law suits) from Japanese liberals and the left, the state apparatus that has heretofore been excoriated as presenting a right-wing, sanitized version of modern Japanese history is now being used to apparently push an overtly right-wing version of history into a centrist, if not left-wing, view of history. [….] It would be extremely ironic if the system that Ienaga Saburo and other Japanese liberal/left-wing intellectuals have been fighting for years now turns out to be the bulwark against an even more right-wing interpretation of Japanese history than government bureaucrats would wish. [….] As far as I know, no Japanese textbook to date has even touched the subject of Chinese or Korean collaborators or “atrocities” by Chinese or Koreans against their own people. It would be “interesting” to see how the Chinese or Koreans would react if a Japanese textbook took up these issues in a factual manner.8
Much to the irritation of Japan’s disgruntled neighbors, even with the required changes the newly approved textbook still glosses over the imperialistic role that Japan played in WW II. The battle over how to represent Japan’s wartime military “advances” versus military “aggression” has a high level of very vocal involvement from East Asian countries that were invaded by Japan. South Korea and China have long been critical of the dismissive manner in which Japanese textbooks obfuscate wartime atrocities. The recent approval of the controversial “revisionist” history textbook prompted a wave of criticism from South Korea and China about the need for a balanced portrayal of Japan’s role in the Asia-Pacific region during World War II. South Korea went to the extent of temporarily recalling the ambassador to Japan.
Needless to say, nationalist Japanese greatly resent the “neighboring countries” provision, since it allows what they consider to be excessive foreign influence in Japan’s internal policy issues. Often the international political climate can determine whether a particular event is openly condemned or whether it is given a low priority. Groups of citizens with crosscutting agendas, both victors and victims of previous international confrontations, at least those with adequate access to power, exert pressure on the social studies curriculum at home and abroad. Offending nations are expected to include narratives that confess guilt, exude remorse, and instruct their populace about the evils of the previous regime. Often Hollywood and the popular media play a role in the international awareness gained by certain historical events such as the attention that The Killing Fields brought to the genocide of over a million Cambodians at the hands of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.
In contrast to Japanese textbooks, the official historical narrative in Germany is very critical of Germany’s aggression during WWII. A denigration of Nazism is central to the construct of the social studies curricula in Germany–the Holocaust is condemned and denounced in school textbooks. Germany’s need for workable international relations with its European neighbors demanded that the historical narrative in post-war German textbooks denounce the Nazi Regime and take responsibility for wartime aggression.
Comparatively, there is little high level and persistent international pressure exerted on the internal affairs of the education ministry in Turkey to express remorse in their school textbooks regarding the massacre of Armenians. Tibetans obviously have no leverage and indeed not any possibility of pressuring the education ministry of the People’s Republic of China to include an apologetic appraisal of the negative impact of the Chinese occupation of Tibet since 1950. Some genocidal tales or subaltern revolutions become the proper topic for academic discourse and find voice in popular histories. Other cultural cataclysms and demographic decimations are simply swallowed by time as too impossible to believe or irrelevant from a geo-political perspective. Or importantly, as we will see in the case of what has been termed the “Hindu Holocaust,” sometimes topics are so charged with contemporary antagonisms leading to potential for inter-group violence, that they are shunned as an improper subject for academic discourse. History is written to suit real politicks and the sensibilities of the modern age, as Trouillot observes,
When reality does not coincide with deeply held beliefs, human beings tend to phrase interpretations that force reality within the scope of these beliefs. They devise formulas to repress the unthinkable and to bring it back within the realm of accepted discourse.9
As previously mentioned, postwar German textbooks are far more forthcoming about atrocities committed during the war than are the Japanese about their wartime “crimes against humanity”. This may be due in part to the manner in which the organizational strategies of the occupation forces of the Allied armies played out differently in the two nations during the post war period. In Japan, Mac Arthur, kept the war-time Japanese bureaucracy in place along with the emperor Hirohito, whereas in Germany most Nazi bureaucrats and officials were, if not tried and convicted, at least disgraced and removed from their posts.10 In Censoring History: Citizenship and Memory in Japan, Germany, and the United States, the editors have assembled an impressive collection of essays that seek to explain the political and social roots of these different approaches to dealing with the past.11 By comparing the post-war conditions in each country, the authors illuminate how the historical narratives have been controlled, specific to each nation’s evolving self-image, enlightened self-interest, and international interrelationships.
Even when textbooks are radically altered, people continue to place faith in the new interpretations, believing that the new historical facts represent the real truth. However, this truth found in the contents of the textbooks is always changing as it attempts to influence the direction of society and as it is in turn affected by societal changes. History in textbooks is distorted, decontextualized, and reconstituted. These very contractions and expansions, the flips and flops and hops of historical interpretation, can offer a distinct view of the dynamics of and the demands on societies as they write and unwrite and rewrite the past to suit the present. Textbooks as a pliable and public product can provide a lens on the evolving self-image of a society. “The ways in which what happened and that which is said to have happened are and are not the same may itself be historical.”12
Nations come into being based on certain shared perspectives that undergo a continual process of reevaluation as the societal and the political situations change. Allegiances and expectations erected through the process of nationalism and national consensus create a passionate commitment to an abstract, constantly transforming, transpersonal entity: the nation-state. National symbols such as anthems and flags as well as historical narratives elicit powerfully felt emotive responses. However, carefully hidden from the patriots’ purview is the reality that the cultural signification implied by these symbols are transitional and perpetually liminal in nature and the construction of the “Nation” is at best ambivalent.
Homi Bhabha, in Nation and Narration eloquently states,
Nations, like narrative, lose their origins in the myths of time and only fully realize their horizons in the mind’s eye. Such an image of the nation – or narratio – might seem impossibly romantic and excessively metaphorical, but it is from those traditions of political thought and literary language that the nation emerges as a powerful historical idea in the west. An idea whose cultural compulsion lies in the impossible unity of the nation as a symbolic force. This is not to deny the attempt by nationalist discourses persistently to produce the idea of the nation as a continuous narrative of nation progress, the narcissism of self-generation, the primeval present of the Volk.13
While doing research in Bangladesh, I was told numerous times that the 1971 War of Liberation brought into geographical reality the fulfillment of the inevitability of the primordial and nascent Bengali nation. From “time immemorial Bengalis resisted invaders including the Aryans and cultural pressures from all sides, maintained their Bengaliness.”14 Bangladesh was the final working out in a political sense of what had always existed culturally. Bangladeshi textbooks represent a clear example of several layers of curriculum reform. Initially, after the partition of the Subcontinent in 1947, the textbooks published by the East Pakistan textbook board mirrored the Islamic Nationalism that was being generated in the western wing of the country. After 1971, Bengali nationalism was superimposed upon this Islamic nationalism that had itself been superimposed on the existing colonial historical constructs. In Bangladesh, during military rule in the late seventies and eighties, another layer of Islamic nationalism was imposed on the Bengali narrative, though without the anti-Hindu tirades that characterized the Islamization of the historical narrative that was simultaneously being manufactured by the military rulers of Pakistan. However many layers of nationalist, religious, and ethnic identities, the primordial inevitability of the geo-political state is unquestioned.
Many Pakistanis have also told me that their nation was the final unfolding of the historic destiny of Islam in South Asia, the coming together of the word of God and geography. With so much at stake, textbooks are vehicles of sacred lore and incontrovertible truths, and as such, must be corralled, controlled, and vigilantly guarded. If Bob Dole and Lynn Chaney, two proud Americans whose criticism of the multicultural nature of the 1995 U.S. History Standards are discussed below, were instead proud Pakistanis, they would undoubtedly be passionately defending the Ideology of Pakistan and the Two-Nation Theory, waging accusations of treason against scholars who have reservations or alternative interpretations about the standard, nationalized, Islamized, codified historical narrative.
Justifications for the Study Part Two:
Vagaries, Vulgarities, Hegemony in Educational Paradigms
Early Indian nationalists expressed a pan-Indian ethos that stressed the plurality of India’s many ethnic and linguistic groups–“Unity in Diversity” has long been India’s national slogan. Though many of these nationalists such as Ram Mohan Roy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Aurobindo Ghose were situated within their Hindu cultural traditions, the very nature of that tradition allowed them to view the diversity of religious expressions in India as threads of a great inclusive civilization; with saints and narratives strung like gems along the centuries, creating a civilizational mala15 of interrelated and overlapping cultural experiences. Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore proposed pedagogical models that were situated within the Indian milieu, however, they were not implemented and after 1947 schooling remained based on colonial curriculum paradigms.
For most of the first fifty years in post independence India, the state sponsored academic discourse was guided by a secular socialist “Nehruvian” doctrine that sought to delink progress and nationalism from culture and religion. In an attempt to be sensitive to the feelings of religious minority groups and to help them feel integrated into the nation, the official historical narrative often obscured certain facts or details. Theoretically driven trajectories were promoted in textbooks published by the National Center for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) and in courses at history departments at India’s flagship universities, such as Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and Delhi University.
Since its inception, JNU has been the domain of secular/socialist scholarship and has, through the years, produced many excellent historians. It is ironic to note, however, that though JNU offers advanced degrees in Indian history it does not offer classes in Sanskrit, even though there are degrees available in both classical and modern Arabic and classical and modern Persian. It has been proposed several times in the past, even prior to the BJP’s ascent to power, that Sanskrit be added to the available classical languages that students can take at JNU, thereby facilitating the reading of ancient texts in order to study Indian history.
The suggestion was criticized and rejected several times as tied of the Saffron/Hindu Nationalist agenda. When I questioned Romila Thapar, a well know historian from JNU, about this issue she explained that if students want to learn Sanskrit, “there are so many Maths and Piths around where they can go.”16 She added that most of the regional colleges have some kind of Sanskrit program. However, the fact remains that the primary tool through which to study ancient India, namely the Sanskrit language, is not available to students attending JNU, India’s premier academic institution. And significantly, implementing the study of this quintessential part of Hindu tradition was vehemently opposed by the faculty. They would prefer that Sanskrit education remain in the domain of religious institutions, so as not to sully JNU’s leftist/secular reputation with anything too closely associated with Hindu traditions. Not all Indian universities share this aversion.
A recent article that appeared in The Indian Express expressed concern that Indian students who wanted to study Sanskrit were better served by going to American graduate programs such as at the University of Chicago,
While we battle each other on the streets on whether Sanskrit should be revived in the school curricula or not, top notch western universities have been busy churning one esoteric dissertation after another on Panini’s Ashtadhyay and comparing Bhartihari’s and Patanjali’s grammatical logic.17
The author states that at American universities the children of Indians who immigrated to the U.S. in the sixties and seventies are “alienated kids, desperate to discover their historical roots and cultural heritage, who are studying Sanskrit with a passion.” Some scholars, including myself, object to this depiction of Hindu-American students as culturally alienated. I have interviewed many students who are attending American universities and taking courses to learn about their heritage. There is very little desperation, except the same pressures that all students may feel during finals week.
Indians who self-identify themselves as “leftist” otherwise known as “progressives” often without hesitation condemn students and other Hindus from India who are trying to preserve or reclaim their traditions. One professor of Indian origin, who is a outspoken critic of the Hindu Revivalist phenomenon, told me “It is sad when these young Hindus come to America and try to recapture their Hindu culture. They are trapped between two worlds. It is pathetic to see them trying to be Hindu while struggling to adapt to living in the West. They don’t even know Sanskrit, but they are clinging to outdated traditions they selectively interpret. They are narrow-minded bastard hybrids, caught between two cultures.”
Unfortunately, this depiction of Indians who have a developed sense of cultural pride is a prevalent perspective, particularly among the Western/Westernized academic community. Though these recent Indian immigrants are able to excel in graduate programs at American universities or succeed in business, they are called obscurantist because they have not discarded or distanced themselves from their cultural heritage or religious beliefs. These diasporic Indians who have maintained a sense of cultural pride and nurture respectful feelings of their ancestral religion have been pejoratively reclassified as “Hindu-fascists,” “Neo-Hindu Nazis,” and “Saffronites” or simply, “pathetic hybrids” by the Western academic community and Indian leftist scholars.
I would argue that they are not at all pathetic but rather a marvelously self created hybridity born between the pressures of modernity and a personal spiritual tradition based on ageless wisdom. How can that be pathetic in this mindless world? There is duplicity in the criticism that chides the young Hindus for not knowing Sanskrit, when very few practicing Christians know Latin or Aramaic. If is very doubtful that these same leftist Indians would criticize a young practicing American-Muslim for not being fluent in Medieval Arabic. In any other context, it is offensive to glibly deride another person’s religious experience, except when it comes to Hinduism.
The obstacles and ironies regarding the teaching of Sanskrit at Indian academic institutions have caused delays and distractions but, with the new imperatives to Indianize the curriculum, Sanskrit programs are now being developed at several prominent universities. In the near future, university students in India will finally “have the option of studying Sanskrit texts and the precise science of Sanskrit grammar.” New Sanskrit studies programs are currently being created in response to a proposal circulated by the Ministry for Human Resources and Development that encouraged the establishment of Sanskrit at the university level. Responding to the call from the highly controversial HRD minister, M.M. Joshi, the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, one of India’s top universities has developed an “inter-disciplinary programme in Sanskrit.” News has it that students at IIT Delhi are signing up for the elective program.
Leftists scholars who have worked hard for thirty years to impact the future generations of Indians, have expressed horror at the possibility that today’s educated youths, who learned Indian history under the tutelage of a leftist directed, NCERT generated narrative, would re-embrace a spiritual identity which had been downplayed and depicted as superstitious in most textbook treatments of Hinduism. This feeling of having lost a generation, that the current batch of teens are hyper-nationalists, is a general complaint among leftist educators whom I interviewed in New Delhi in 1999 and 2000. Hindu Nationalists also feel that members of a lost generation of post-colonial Indian Macaulayites were indoctrinated by anti-Indian Marxist analyses. Many more seem poised to reclaim more indigenous models.18
Ironically, within India, popular grass-roots perceptions have scarcely been impacted by five decades of promoting dialectic materialism as the basis for the understanding of Indian culture and history. Today there is a backlash within the majority Hindu community that alleges that Indic traditions have been denigrated and downgraded in academic institutions, including NCERT textbooks. They claim, as they do, that since independence in an effort to elevate or support sub-national religious groups, the secular socialist19 historical narrative has subtly disempowered Hinduism and the other faiths associated with what is called Sanatana Dharma, which includes Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, and other religions that share a distinctly India source. This strategy of historiography was pursued in order to hopefully prevent what Nehru warned democracy could become in India, “the tyranny of the majority.”
The volatile nature of national identity formation implicates the politics of historiography and impacts the writing and rewriting of historical narratives. Certainly the “rewriting of history” is not unique to India, “history battles” are being waged from Israel and Palestine to the Balkans and the countries of the former Soviet Block. In the USA, during the “History Wars” in the 1990s, educators and intellectuals from the liberal left and conservative right fought tit for tat battles in the op-ed pages of major newspapers. As Sam Wineburg, colorfully describes in his recent book, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts,
The choice between the two seemed absurd but this was exactly what the debate about national history standards had become, ‘George Washington or Bart Simpson,’ asked Senator Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) during the 1995 Congressional debates on this subject: Which figure represents a ‘more important part of our Nation’s history for our children to study?20 To Gordon, the proposed national standards represented a frontal attack on American civilization, an ‘ideologically driven anti-Western monument to politically correct caricature.’ The Senate, in apparent agreement, rejected the standards 99-1.21
Which history we will teach our children becomes more important than why or how history is taught.
The rancor that was exchanged during this debate over the National History Standards is indicative of the seriousness with which proponents of each school of thought view their mandates, as if their very survival was at stake. As Sam Wineburg describes, “In the barroom terms befitting such a brawl, those who wrote the standards were traitors, those who opposed them, racists.” Senator Bob Dole, the 1996 Republican presidential candidate stated that the “national standards were the ‘handiwork of people worse than external enemies’.” Those supportive of the new National History Standards pointed out that these kinds of paranoid comments were “driven by latent fears over a diverse America in which the ‘new faces [that] crowd[ed] onto the stage of history ruin the symmetry and security of older versions of the past’.”22
In Indian historiography a similarly contemptuous mêlée has erupted around what would otherwise seem like a rather dry intellectual debate among antiquarians discussing the distant past regarding questions about the origin, or geographical homeland of the Vedic Aryans. Were they nomadic tribes originating in the Russian Steppes who came into the Subcontinent over the Khyber Pass in successive waves, beginning around 1700 BCE, where they encountered and possibly displaced a sedentary Indus Valley culture? Or were the Aryan family groups indigenous to India, as many archeologists and other scholars of Vedic literature now propose?
European philologists “discovered” the rich literary Sanskrit tradition at the end of the eighteenth century; and during the nineteenth century constructed the theory of the Aryan Invasion based on their study of the etymology of common roots of words, which they claim came from a Proto-Indo-European parent language. Indologists mined Vedic literature looking for clues that could prove the Aryans originally came from outside of the Subcontinent. It was reasoned that such a sophisticated language, related to but more refined than Latin, must have come into India from a common proto-Indo-European source. According to this line of thinking, from its pristine Vedic form, Sanskritic culture gradually degenerated into Hindu idolatry and ritual. Conveniently, the Aryan Invasion provided a pattern of conquests by outsiders, which helped to justify colonial rule over a land that had always been subjugated by foreigners – first the Central Asian Aryans, followed by the Turks and Afghans, and finally the Europeans. In this way, India was seen as a derivative civilization, always in need of stimulation from outsiders to progress.
The Aryan Invasion Theory has been widely disseminated for over two centuries and still features prominently in most high school level World History textbooks in the U.S. and in countries such as Pakistan where the textbooks describe the Aryans as fair skinned invaders who brought the evil caste system to the area that is now Pakistan and enslaved the indigenous dark-skinned Dravidians. Almost all Pakistani textbooks add a warning that the descendants of the Aryans [Hindu dominated India] would, if given a chance, also enslave the Muslims of Pakistan. Many contemporary scholars, both in the West and in India, also embrace this narrative, though in a less overtly nationalistic form than in Pakistan.
There are, however, many mainstream scholars who refute the Aryan Invasion Theory and have called into question the methodologies of the Western philologists and their contemporary counterparts, Indologists. Lining up in opposing positions, the “inside India” proponents claim that the theories of Indologists were constructed with a political agenda from an unequal relationship of power – a position of cultural and economic hegemony. It is argued that scholars who are strongly opposed to considering an indigenous origin for the Sanskrit language employ Euro-centric colonial era paradigms in their analyses, which overlook not only the archeological record, but misread and ignore important references from Vedic literature.
Employing alternative research methodologies and reevaluating passages from the Vedas, scholars who are questioning the Aryan Invasion/Migration23 Theory have found considerable flaws in the early Indological interpretations. By computing ancient astronomical correlations based on the procession of the equinoxes with seasonal astrological references in the Rg Veda, and bringing into consideration the vast data that has emerged in the past few decades from archeological discoveries at sites along the bed of the dried up Saraswati River and across large areas of Northern India and the Gujarati coastal area, scholars have seriously challenged the Aryan Invasion/Migration Theory.
These proponents of an inside India origin for the Aryans have suggested that the civilization that created the cities, trading routes, and seaports of the Indus/Saraswati culture were in fact, the same cultural group whose predecessors produced the Vedas and are thus the ancestors of the “Harappans” and by extension, ancestors of the contemporary inhabitants of the Indian Subcontinent. This of course could only have occurred if the writing of the Vedas preceded the urban development of the Indus Valley/Saraswati Civilization. Such a theory pushes the date of the Vedas back several thousand years from what is assumed by traditional Indologists, who date them from around 1200 B.C.E.
Reinterpreting dated data, and applying new theories and technologies to old historical problems is the usual and accepted methodology of the history profession and serves to further research. The same rethinking of chronology is going on among Egyptologists as they apply new laboratory texts to mortar samples from pyramids and other techniques that can help them date the structures more exactly. Even in this field there are wide discrepancies among competing theories. The one great difference is that the vast majority of Egyptians do not have spiritual connections and extant ritual practices that tie them to the ancient religions of the Pharaoh, whereas contemporary Indians trace their religion to the Vedas.
When it comes to the Aryan Invasion Theory, well established, tenured Indologists have little patience for challenges to their claim of an outside of India origin for Vedic Sanskrit. Quite often, in this debate, rather than calling methodologies and textual references into question, a common response against arguments supporting an inside India origin of the Aryans, as strange as it may seem, is to politically discredit the research by accusing the scholars of fascism.
It is widely assumed by many Indologists that the vast majority of scholars who question the invasion paradigm are Hindu nationalists, whom they derisively refer to as “Hindu Nazis”. This seemingly automatic response, that unquestioningly labels a scholar as “fascist” sympathizers simply for asking penetrating questions and posing alternative solutions to an old historical problem is a common tact within the hotly contested political debate over the content and meaning of ancient history in India. However, there are numerous Western, non-Hindu scholars who are also rethinking the plausibility of the invasion theory, and even they are accused of supporting the political agenda of ultra-right-wing Hindu super nationalist politicians. What makes this particular debate so remarkable is the sheer remoteness of the narrative.
The simplistic polarized understanding – racist/humanist, patriot/traitor – that emerges from dogmatic attachment to a particular historical perspective, as expressed above by Senator Bob Dole, completely ignores the dynamic role of contesting historiographies. The example from India plays out in an almost identical pattern, where many scholars, including Euro-Americans and Indian leftists, have labeled those who question the Aryan Invasion Theory as Hindu Fundamentalists, also referred to by the pejorative term Saffronites, in reference to the ochre color of a saint’s robes. Scholars who are personally committed or professionally attached to the Aryan Invasion Theory are quick to accuse proponents of the Indigenous Aryan Theory of promoting racism, rabid nationalism, xenophobia, and other social ills. They claim that if the Saffronites succeed in proving that the Aryans were not outsiders, it will make it easier to vilify Indian Muslims as foreigners.24
An article that appeared in an Indian magazine Frontline25 reporting about the 61st session of the Indian History Congress (IHC), held in Kolkata from January 2 to 4, 2001, expressed “concern over attempts to distort history in school textbooks and thus subvert secular education.” The well-known leftist historian, and eminent scholar from Alighar University, Professor Irfan Habib is quoted in the article where, in mocking tones, he evaluates the historical debate,
According to the Sangh Parivar26 , the Aryans did not come to India, they were from North India, in fact, more specifically, from Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. This is ridiculous, and it has reached such a point that whoever says that the Aryans came to India are labeled racists and those who say that they were from India are hailed as patriots.
Those who support the Aryan Invasion Theory, such as Professor Habib, are conversely labeled neo-colonial and anti-Indian, and as he mentioned, “racists” by scholars “hailed as patriots” who support the indigenous Aryan model. According to those so-call patriots, historians like Professor Habib are still clinging to old theories, refusing to take note of new discoveries, blinded by a legacy of pseudo-secular vote bank politics. Scholars who share Professor Habib’s view that an inside origin of the Aryans is “ridiculous” would call advocates of that theory racists, anti-national and against the basic secular, socialist, pluralistic ethos of India. In this discourse there is often very little discussion of evidence based on research, and the rhetoric is diverted to personal attacks and slander. Both camps inevitably label the other anti-national.
Racists and patriots are fighting a contemporary academic battle over an interesting, but remote historical question. Habib finds the idea of indigenous Aryans to be ridiculous and could have continued his list of dyads to include other pairs of ideologically opposing positions–obscurantist/scientific, traditional/modern, revivalist/progressive. The politically charged nature of this debate has provoked normally sophisticated and erudite Sanskrit scholars at institutions such as Harvard, to insinuate that supporters of the “Autochtonous Aryan” theory are fascists or at best New Age adherents to neo-Hindu obscurantism.27 However as the following quote from a scholar of Sanskrit from Athens, Greece points out, not all who question the Aryan Invasion theory are Hindu nationalists and there is, more importantly, room for doubt and scholarly discourse.
The situation whereby the Aryans are indigenous and compose the bulk of the [Rg Veda] in the 4th millennium in Saptasindhu is a very simple one and in harmony with the archaeological data in the region. Scholars who think that this simple situation is at odds with their linguistic theories need do no more than reexamine these theories, which necessitate the further theory of the Aryan immigration, which theory generates complexities and problems and is in conflict with the data of Archaeology. After all it is not as though these linguistic theories are without problems of their own or that in their present form they harmonize with archaeological data anywhere else in the Eurasian belt involved.28
The philologists are ready to defend the Indo-European forts and fight it out with the archeologists, whom they have dubbed Hindu nationalists. These are not just non-Hindu Indians or “secular” Hindus who are passionately opposed to reopening the verdict on this antiquarian question, Euro-American scholars are equally threatened and have drawn their ideological battle lines. Kazanas continues,
Instead of emitting such strident emotional cries and witch-hunt slogans, Prof Witzel and his followers had better re-examine their unfounded linguistic assumptions and recall the words of Edmund Leach, who was neither an Indian nationalist technocrat, nor a New-Age writer, but a solid, mainstream pillar of the academic establishment. He wrote: “Because of their commitment to a unilineal segmentary history of language development that needed to be mapped onto the ground, the philologists took it for granted that proto-Indo-Iranian was a language that had originated outside either India or Iran. From this we derived the myth of the Aryan invasions.”29 Then that provost of King’s College, Cambridge, added that to shift the Aryan invasion theory, which he dismissed contemptuously, “is like trying to cut down a 300-year-old oak tree with a pen-knife. But the job will have to be done one day”.
We can only wonder in amazement how a vignette from the ancient past can arouse such passion among what are often stereotyped as a rather dull lot, social scientists and humanities scholars. Though a historical study of evidence about a people who lived five or seven thousand years ago would not seem a likely source of such heated polemics, when it come to identity formation and laying claims to a biological biography tied to a sacred geography, no other discipline seems to elicit such acrimonious and passionate debates as does historiography.
Yet, debate is the source of discovery in the field of historiography. It is the dynamic nature of the discipline that is at the heart of true historical research–an ultimately very democratic process that is constantly pushing the envelope of knowledge by illuminating little known facts and presenting alternative interpretations. Very often scholars outside the field make breakthrough discoveries that create a framework or timetable upon which historical hypothesis can be re-explored and articulated. Except in the case of top-down force-fed historical distortions, such as those imposed on the German people by the Nazis and the Russian people by the Soviets, most alternative historiographies arising from the scholarly population are an expression of changing identities or contesting perceptions of the past.
For years French history textbooks ignored “France’s collaboration with its Nazi occupiers” but since “the mid-1970’s, spurred by scholarly histories, the spread of new historical methods and the rise of a less tainted and more curious generation” French textbooks “began to deal more honestly with World War II.”30 Sometimes some historical interpretations may swing too far to the left and seek to validate a vulgar unfolding of society according to Karl Marx. Other times history may be skewed as it is adjusted to accommodate more nationalist interpretations–history can be used to validate almost anything depending on how you use it. Does our historical training teach us humility or hubris? Self-pride or self-importance?
The following long quote from Ananda Wood, an independent Indian scholar living in Pune,31 articulately expresses the dynamic uncertainty of competing analyses of Indian historiography,
One thing that occurs to me about the teaching of history is that teachers should not be afraid to say to their students: ‘We don’t know.’ This applies in particular, in a rather big way, to the Vedas and the Indus civilization. In the present situation, I think it’s best to say to students:
‘Some scholars suggest that the Vedas were composed by immigrants who came into India at the end or soon after the Indus civilization, around 1,500 to 1,000 BCE. And others suggest that they were composed by the inhabitants of the Indus civilization as it developed, starting perhaps as early as 6,500 or 6,000 BCE. But the truth is that there isn’t conclusive evidence for either picture. So there is an huge uncertainty, of 5,000 years, in the age of the Hindu tradition. That uncertainty affects our entire dating of ancient and classical Indic traditions. Modern scholars have tended to dismiss traditional datings as absurdly mythical exaggerations, but it may be that the traditional dating are not quite so wrong at all.’
Of course, such an admission of gross ignorance comes very hard to many teachers: especially in India, where attitudes tend to be polarized between old-fashioned authoritarianism among the traditionalists and brattish assertiveness among the ‘liberals’. Moreover, for those teachers who do bite the bullet and admit the gross uncertainties of Indian history, the admission will of course raise some very tough questions to be answered about the nature and course of Indian history.
Whether or not you think that William Bennett’s and Bob Dole’s observations about values education in the USA are based on a neutral reading of the past or politicized polemic hyperbole based on “the tyranny of the majority ” is determined by your perspective of American history and culture. The same impulses guide members of certain communities in India, many of whom have raised objections about the textbook treatment of particular events in the medieval period. Some members of the Hindu and Sikh communities have complained that their traditions are given short shrift, and any sporadic violence or negative attributes about their particular faiths are highlighted whereas in contrast, they claim that Islam is, in the historical record, scrupulously protected from scrutiny, and the violent deeds of Islamic invaders are often “white-washed.” These concerns will be discussed in the chapter on the rewriting of history in India. Differences in historical perspective can cause tremendous divisions within the scholarly community and even violent repercussions in the larger society.
1. Bryon K. Marshall, Learning to be Modern: Japanese Political Discourse on Education, (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994), p. 1.
2. Novemeber 15, 2000 article, “Storace Is Left Alone in Textbook Wars,” in Italy Daily, published with Corriere della Sera, (distributed with the International Herald Tribune) Milan, Wednesday.
3. Novemeber 16, 2000 article, “Textbook Censorship Issue Embroils Parliament Debate,” in Italy Daily, published with Corriere della Sera, Milan. These newspaper articles from Italy were mailed to me by Mira Lutgendorf.
4. The conference was cosponsored by the Georg-Eckert-Institute for International Textbook Research, information is available at: http://www.gei.de/seenet/seenews23.htm.
5. Bronner, Ethan. “Israeli History Textbooks Replace Myth With Facts,” New York Times, August 13, 1999, page A-1, A-5.
6. Sontag, Deborah. “Forging a Homegrown School Curriculum for a Palestinian State” International Herald Tribune, September 15, 2000, pg. 2 – Bologna edition, (article mailed to me from Italy thanks to Mira Lutgendorf).
7. Tawara Yoshifumi, a Japanese expert on textbooks, examined the situation in a recent article: “Kenpo Ihan/Shinryaku Senso Kotei no ‘Abunai Kyokasho’ no Jittai” (The facts of a ‘dangerous textbook’ that violates the constitution and that affirms the aggressive war), published in _Kikan Senso Sekinin Kenkyu_, no.30 (2000). On recent developments, see “Special Report: Japanese History Textbook Raises Concerns,” Asia Source, April 09, 2001 http://www.asiasource.org/news/at_mp_02.cfm?newsid=48253 and Tawara Yoshifumi, “Junior High School History Textbooks: Whither ‘Comfort Women’ and the ‘Nanking Massacre’?,” SEKAI vol. 681 (November 2000), http://www.iwanami.co.jp/jpworld/text/textbook01.html.
8. Used with permission-from email posted on H-Asia, March 6, 2001, http://www.h-net.msu.edu/~asia/.
9. Trouillot. Pg. 72.
10. Many Germans corporations that had supported the Nazi efforts, such as Krups, were after initially being implicated, quickly resuscitated and involved in the rehabilitation of Germany’s infrastructure.
11. Selden, Mark and Laura Hein, eds. Censoring History: Citizenship and Memory in Japan, Germany, and the United States. (Asia and the Pacific Series, Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2000).
12. Trouillot, pg. 4.
13. From “Introduction: narrating the nation” by Homi K. Bhabha, in Nation and Narration, ed. Homi K. Bhabha (New York: Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1990).
14. From an interview with the director of the Asian Society, Sirajul Islam, Dhaka, March, 1999.
15. Mala is the Sanskrit word for rosary.
16. However, many Sanskrit scholars in western universities, hold critical views of the work produced at Sanskrit institutions in India. In Volume 7 of the Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies (EJVS), March, 2000, Michael Witzel, from Harvard University wrote a critique in which he questioned the quality of work done at schools such as the Rasthriya Sanskrit Sansthan in Delhi. Professor Witzel stated ironically, “One would like to know what other cutting edge, innovative, thought provoking, seminal and trend setting research is carried out [at such] Government financed institution?” http://www.asiatica.org/publications/ejvs/.
17. Ajit Kumar Jha, “Why Is The West Crazy About A ‘Dead’ Language?” The Indian Express, June 10, 2001.
18. From an article circulated by India Abroad News Service, “At IIT Delhi, S in Sanskrit stands for Science,” by Nirmala Gganapathy. http://www.expressindia.com/ie/daily/20010111/ina11029.html.
19. Since labeling your opponent in this historiography battle is one of the essential methods for discrediting them, these eminent historians who have guided “official” Indian historical narrative for over three decades are called “pseudo-secular communists” by the nationalist camp, these “leftist” oriented scholars call themselves “progressives”.
20. Cited in Wineberg from: Gary B. Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn, History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past (New York: Knopf, 1997), p. 232.
21. Wineberg, Sam. (2001) p. 3.
22. Ibid, p. 4.
23. Over the past twenty years many scholars, such as the well-known Indian historian Romila Thapar, have revised the invasion theory and now advocate the Aryan Migration Theory – that the Aryan tribes came as nomadic pastoralists in waves over the course of several centuries.
24. Ironically, many caste conscious (read: color conscious) Hindu elites in India also support the Aryan Invasion theory because they prefer to see themselves as racially distinct from indigenous groups, therefore an Indo-European homeland makes them feel more Caucasian, which they consider to be racially superior to a darker hue of skin tone which they associate with South Indians and tribal peoples. This type of skin tone based racism can be found in all societies and even within families.
25. “Concern over distortions”, by Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay, Volume 18 – Issue 02, Jan. 20-Feb. 02, 2001. Frontline is well known for its staunch opposition to the Sangh Parivar. The editor, N. Ram is quite left leaning, as can easily be seen from his editorials.
26. The group of organizations that promote a Hindu-centric perspective of Indian history and culture. The ideas and historiography of representatives of these groups will be discussed in detail in chapter four that deals with rewriting of history in India.
27. See Frontline, Dec. 2000.
28. From internet correspondence of Nicholas Kazanas, a Sanskritist from Athens, Greece, “The RV Date = a Postscript” an answer to Michael Witzel’s comments about the Aryan Invasion and the Indus Valley Civilization. (Used with permission – “Nicholas Kazanas” firstname.lastname@example.org).
29. Leach, Edmund ‘Aryan Invasions over four millennia’ in Culture through Time, (ed) E. Ohnuki-Tierney, Stanford Univ Press, Stanford 1990, pg 227-45.
30. “Teaching Myths and History”,The New York Times Editorial, February 17, 1998, pg. A22.
31. Ananda Wood, whose father was English, of Irish stock, and whose mother was a Parsee has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and theoretical physics from Cambridge University, and a doctorate in anthropology from University of Chicago (with field research in Kerala, India). This quote is taken with permission from a personal email communication.
Yvette Claire Rosser is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at The University of Texas at Austin. She has a M.A. -South Asian History and Culture & a B.A. (with honors), in Asian Studies from UT Austin.